Ian Fleming’s suave British superspy, James Bond, has been a pop culture icon for over 50 years. Evolving from a literary character to the quintessential blockbuster action hero, he’s gone through decades of re-invention that both innovates and reflects where contemporary cinema goers are in terms of pop culture and what they like from their pulp escapism and fantasy. Who is James Bond? Why ‘nobody does it better’? What drives him and these films about him? These questions rarely came up in Bond’s early days until the radical 2006 re-invention Casino Royale, the 1st time Daniel Craig stepped in the role. That was the moment the franchise began to wrestle with what made the man tick, and the next two films, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall were all about moving this anachronistic character into our modern world, or at least the heightened/romanticized “Bond” equivalent to it. The Bond films have been about many things, some even as ridiculous as cloning and space lasers but the one thing they have never been about is nostalgia. These were movies of their time, occasionally forward-thinking enough to define genre movie-making for the foreseeable future. All Spectre does is regurgitate well-worn tropes without any clue how to re-engineer them for modern standards. Everything old felt new in Skyfall but here, everything is just old. The movie actually would even be just fine as a love letter/homage to those tropes but a lack of strong narrative tissue connecting those beats only compound their ineffectuality. Spectre is a movie so obsessed with regressing Bond back to the past that it plays like a soulless greatest hits cover album. Continue reading The “Spectre” of Past Bonds Looms over This Misfire
Movie star and action-icon Vin Diesel may look and act like your stereotypical macho tough guy, but any interview with him reveals the soul of the dweebiest 20-sided-die-rolling nerd you’ll likely ever meet. The man loves sci-fi and fantasy and games a lot and that’s really apparent in his latest film The Last Witch Hunter. The movie, which Diesel produced for himself to star in, is in part based on a Dungeons & Dragons (a tabletop role-play game for those not “in the know”) character he created and likes play. This is true passion for material that sets this movie apart from forgettable CGI sword-and-sorcery doldrums like Seventh Son or The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Continue reading “The Last Witch Hunter” is Vin Diesel’s Ultimate Role Play Scenario
Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park is one of the landmarks in populist blockbuster films. Like every child in the 90’s I watched that movie both in VHS and revival screenings. It was an adventure about a theme park populated with genetically re-engineered dinosaurs (brought to life with excellent movie special effects) and the concept alone was enough to thrill me as a child and even today fill me with child-like wonder; but I know that the craft behind Spielberg’s 1993 film was ultimately what makes it so effective even 20+ years after the fact. Nowadays, almost anything that can be imagined will be brought to life on screen, spectacle and imaginative concepts aren’t enough to carry a movie along anymore and modern audiences have become increasingly jaded and cynical with every passing summer movie blockbuster season. Couple that cynicism with Hollywood’s predilection for sequels, franchise-building and recycling old intellectual properties and the landscape for big-budget blockbusters are mostly embarrassing time-fillers of diminishing spectacle. To this, there was a golden opportunity for the fourth sequel in a 20-year old franchise that diminished with each successive feature. The opportunity was two-fold: they could skillfully bring back an aging-yet-respected franchise to a public increasingly obsessed w/ nostalgia OR they could respond in kind to the current state of blockbusters. Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World attempts to do both but fails to bring back any respectability to the Jurassic franchise yet it somehow, against all odds, succeeds as a self-loathing takedown of blockbuster filmmaking. This isn’t a review per se but rather a defense of summer 2015s biggest (it’s hit record-breaking billion $ marks) yet possibly most critically misunderstood movie in a long time.
There is no other movie like Jupiter Ascending. Don’t get me wrong, the latest ambitious original intellectual property (IP) from the Wachowskis (Cloud Atlas, The Matrix Trilogy, Speed Racer) is an imaginative and goofy epic space opera with ideas and concepts never done before. With a seemingly bottomless budget and decades (possibly eons) of sci-fi concept art and clear influences from Japanese comics and animation, these ambitious auteur have created not only the craziest, biggest and most visionary sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters of our time…they may have also made one of the dumbest and messiest movies to ever clunk its way to the big screen. In some ways I was reminded of the sheer absurd and trashy joy I felt last year when I saw Luc Besson’s Lucy but I feel that may be underselling it. By no means is Jupiter Ascending a “good” movie let alone a “smart” movie (though it’s clear even in this film the Wachowski siblings may be two of the most intelligent and ambitious mainstream filmmakers out there) but it is endlessly entertaining both in intentional ways and unintentional ways (just as many “so bad-it’s good” moments as there are respectable moments of filmmaking craft) that it practically defies traditional qualification. It’s unfortunate that this film seems destined to fall at the box office (it’s being taken down from screens pretty fast) because if I had the choice between seeing competent-yet-unimaginative and repetitive blockbuster fare (such as the Marvel superhero films) versus endlessly imaginative and wildly ambitious yet weirdly incompetent failures like this, I’d choose the latter every time. Even if this film is for all intents and purposes “terribad,” it’s also one of those rare times I saw a movie and truly felt there were endless possibilities as to what can be imagined and brought to life on screen.
It does not really matter if the fourth Transformers live-action movie is “good” or “bad.” It will be a 9+ $ figure global megahit all the while critics lambast the film and internet bloggers/forum prowlers get their metaphorical dung, tar & feathers ready to be thrown at Michael Bay for his alleged cinematic “crimes.” However something occurred to me as I was viewing Transformers 4 (subtitled: “Age of Extinction”), as I was rolling my eyes at the mid-film barrage of explosions with eerily-centered product placement logos, I noticed that the audience, mostly filled with neatly dressed & groomed professionals and hyperactive children, in the theater were all cheering. Despite nearly every worst instinct Michael Bay has as a filmmaker and storyteller being emphasized to obnoxious degrees in the nearly 3-hour long film, audiences were eating it up with huge grins on their faces. Some actually enjoyed the film, some enjoyed it for the pleasure of skewering it for their blogs and peer amusements and then there were others who were simply fascinated with what this film was trying to say. I fall into the latter category. Believe it or not, even the most mainstream studio-backed product is in some ways a work of art and every work of art makes a statement. While some far-reaching cinephiles have often taken the stance of Michael Bay’s films as satires on one subject or another, what is ultimately more fascinating is what the films say about the man behind them. Transformers: Age of Extinction may not be a “good” film or even a functional one but like many of Bay’s films it serves as a sort of Rorschach image peer into the mind of the filmmaker.
The Amazing Spider-Man 2, sequel to the moderately successful 2012 reboot of the Spider-Man film franchise brings the attitude and joy of the modern era Spider-Man comics (particularly the “Ultimate” Marvel Universe book-line) yet fails miserably to come together as a film. Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), returns for this iteration but instead of adhering to his quirky indie-young romance sensibilities that made the previous film such a charming effort (despite some narrative flaws) Webb instead opts to ramp up the blockbuster superhero action. The result here a mixed bag where the effects-laden heroics are grandiose and certainly capture some of the spirit and attitude of the comics but threaten to overshadow any of the film’s human elements. On top of that is a narrative structure that is as confused as it is messy, completely lacking a proper dramatic thorough line to tie and connect its set-pieces and multiple plotlines together let alone come to a cathartic conclusion. This film may be the best AND worst we’ve seen of this character and franchise on screen and that’s a big problem. The pieces of a great Spider-Man story are in place, but they’re never connected and executed in a way that is meaningful let alone cohesively. Much like the previous film, it gets by on the charisma of the cast and sharp production work, but perhaps due to the film’s bloated and inconsistent nature any and all merits of the film are drastically overshadowed by its weaknesses.
Historical inaccuracies are forgivable in period-set films, especially when they are so clearly more “fantasy-oriented” or anachronistic or just for the sake of enriching the atmosphere, style, story and entertainment value. The problem is that 300: Rise of an Empire just is not much fun or entertaining. We live in an age where trashy rock ‘em sock ‘em “junk food” films have been pretty much perfected. Unfortunately this awkward spinoff to the 2006 Zack Snyder film 300 sort of forgets much of the stylish grindhouse ingenuity of the original in favor of a heavy handed talky/expository affair that is at times jingoistic, misogynistic, mean-spirited and ultimately dull. Whereas Snyder’s film was a macho death-fantasy, this one plays like a derivative cover-band recreation that misses what made the original so special and enduring. The film depicts a war between white (or orange, as per the film’s odd color palate) people who “don’t negotiate with tyrants” and the brown people who hate their freedom. The original film had its fair share of troubling implications but the stylish way in which beefed-up dudes slaughtered one another whilst half-naked made the film far too silly and over-the-top to have its issues be taken seriously. This film however, dumps much of the testosterone power fantasy in favor of…philosophical debates and exposition which all but put a spotlight on the film’s troubles.